There was an incredible buzz surrounding the London première of Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain (2000), given by the London Sinfonietta and conductor Emilio Pomàrico at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday night. Proclaimed by Simon Rattle – a man with a golden touch when it comes to lending support to things – as a 21st-century masterpiece, in vain has won itself a level of cool that is vanishingly rare among contemporary pieces. And the astonishing rhetorical verve of both the piece and this performance of it meant that it lived up to expectations, with a number of audience members even rising to their feet at the end – a rare accolade for a première in the UK.

Georg Friedrich Haas © GM Castelberg
Georg Friedrich Haas
© GM Castelberg

The most headline-worthy aspect of in vain is its curious use of lighting: all the lights go out twice, with the musicians having to memorise long stretches of the score and the audience submerged in total darkness. It’s not just about this effect, though: what really makes the piece remarkable is its communicative urgency. Like so much of the best abstract music, it somehow seems to convey something very particular and very important, despite the absence of words. The piece lasts around 70 minutes without interruption, and is completely relentless. I’m not sure what it all meant, but whatever it meant, it really meant it.

Most of the time, in vain is a dizzying flurry of notes. It’s brilliantly well scored for its 24 players, and makes extensive use of microtonal pitches derived from overtone series. Its world of sounds is consistently fresh, whether beautiful or harsh or simple – or, as it is on a couple of occasions, terrifying. Scales predominate – long sections simply wind up or down, step by step – but the tunings always disconcert.

Experimenting like this with tunings is not radical in itself, but what makes it all seem so new here is the rhetorical brilliance with which Haas (who we interviewed back in October) presents it. In spite of the piece’s intensity and length, I found that it was really a few choice moments that made the performance affecting, and not so much the experience overall. It’s a testament to its dramatic clout, though, that I wouldn’t want to divulge too much about these affecting moments here without a spoiler warning. Suffice to say, it may have been pitch black, but I am sure I was not the only person in the hall whose jaw dropped in awe at the work’s climax.

And the lighting effects were a key part of all this – a strange one, yes, but one which undoubtedly shaped the experience significantly. Turning the lights off, after all, affects even what sort of music you can write: to make the players memorise the virtuosic passagework of, for instance, the opening of the piece (and then perform it without a visible conductor) would have been insane. Haas’ music instead reconstitutes itself; it seems to grope around for new sounds and possibilities. The darkness is meaningful, and so, eventually, is the light.

Equally key was the contribution of the marvellously committed London Sinfonietta, clearly completely on top of the work following a first performance at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last month, and just as clearly enjoying themselves – they gave Haas a warm round of applause when he joined them on stage at the end. Pomàrico, bafflingly only now making his London debut, conducted with the deep passion of someone doing Mahler.

Is the piece a 21st-century masterpiece, though? It had its flaws. I’d be lying if I claimed that I was on the edge of my seat for the duration – 70 minutes is extremely long for an abstract, single-movement “symphonic”-style piece, and there is perhaps a reason for this. And what’s more, the undoubted climax – jaw-dropping though it may have been – arrived bizarrely early on, making the final stretch seem strangely meandering. I have certainly been as moved by various other 21st-century pieces, and as impressed, if perhaps not as viscerally shaken.

After the paltry one hearing I’ve had, I’m not quite ready to dish out all the superlatives. But unlike most 21st-century compositions, masterpieces or otherwise, in vain has achieved a level of popularity that means that repeat performances seem inevitable. Here’s hoping that in coming years we get the chance to shine a brighter light on the piece’s qualities.

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